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A South African PIO opens a new door

india Updated: Jan 11, 2009 19:48 IST
MR Venkatesh
MR Venkatesh
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

When the union Panchayati Raj Minister, Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar made a passionate plea with a missionary zeal on how the Indian Diaspora could help improve education and health in India's villages at the just concluded 7th 'Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD)' in Chennai, the idea of a 'New India sans jingoism' took on hues of a new realism.

One door closes for another to open. And it was significant that a woman historian, author and a person of Indian origin (PIO) from South Africa, which turned out India's first great modern 'Pravasi' in Mahatma Gandhi, tried to open a new door of understanding in the PBD's final moments.

"One thing that has helped to sustain ourselves as Indian Diaspora and survive the ordeals wherever we are, is the insight of the 'Upanishads'- 'Tat Tvam Asi'- that you are one with the ultimate reality-" declared Ms Shireen Sarojini Mudali Munusamy, born of a Tamil father hailing from Vellore, 150 km from Chennai, and her mother with moorings in Jaipur in the North. Her forefathers had migrated from India to Durban in search of work in 1892.

This insight from India's ancient civilization was not a disjointed one-liner for her, as many at the last plenary session on "Language and Culture" including the young DMK woman MP, Ms Kanimozhi who chaired that session, were flummoxed of its relevance to the Indian Diaspora now.

Sarojini, as she later explained in an exclusive interview to 'Hindustan Times', said that she saw in that mystical statement from the 'Upanishads', a stinging critique of the colonial masters themselves. The "soul" cannot be subjugated, even if the 'body' can be ruled over, a theme that also dominates the works of the great Tamil Nationalist poet, Subramani Bharathi.

And this fascination with the 'Amara Kavi' Bharathi led her on to a new research on the "role of South India in our freedom struggle" with a particular focus on the life and work of Bharathi, which seeks to bring out the synergy between how individuals are as much shaped by history as they contribute to shaping history, as she later put it.

"This is 16-years of painstaking research," said Sarojini after her new book 'Subramani Bharathi - In Freedom's Quest' was launched at the PBD by the Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Mr Vayalar Ravi. Ms Kanimozhi received the first copy.

"I found there has been a paucity of literature in the field of historiography on the development of the National consciousness in South India," another major reason for her to embark on this study.

"Particularly, I found that no University in South Africa has any solid material on developments in South India of that freedom struggle period, and so I hope this study will go a long way," Sarojini, who has worked extensively on modern South African History and served as Director of the Human Rights Committee of the South African Government, said.

Under the guidance of the Tamil University's former Vice-Chancellor, Prof Ouvaii Natarajan, she not only spent considerable time in Tamil Nadu over the years researching materials for her work and lived with Bharathi's surviving family members here to get a personal insight, but before coming here also spent a lot of time digging into the archives at India Office Library in London, on the poet's works and life.

"Bharathi's works were considered seditious by the British and hence I wanted to get the British's views on India's freedom struggle of that period as well," Sarojini said, adding she studied the documents in London to 'ensure no jingoism influences the nature and objectivity of my work."

After the India launch of her book, Sarojini said she has been invited to launch this work in seven other countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Australia, Mauritius, UK and Canada, that would virtually cover the entire spectrum of people of Indian origin.

Sarojini has also planned a sequel to this work, which will focus on Bharathi as a "spiritual democrat". This would be followed by a substantive series on other great political personalities from South India including VO Chidambaram Pillai who formed the first 'Swadeshi' steam navigation company, the author said.